Writer’s Wednesday: Why be Original When a Cliché Will do?

Pick up any magazine with a few feature articles in it and play “spot the cliché“. We all use clichés and often without noticing them; they all too easily pass into professional copy. Is this sloppy writing or a stylistic conformity to idiom? Either way, here’s an exercise to hone your writerly chops: Get your clichés together from your chosen publication and play with them, see if you can’t rewrite them with something more original, or give them an unexpected twist.

This selection is culled from the current edition of Jazzwise magazine.

… the list goes on and on …

It is hard to get around this one. To me it feels like a longhand way of saying “… etc …” which is “a definite no, no.” It is also better than “a list as long as my arm” but the second “and on” is what pushes this phrase over into my kill zone. So how about:

… the list has more items than a record-breaking origami crane collection …

… sterling performance …

Sterling is a standard purity of silver and implies quality and durable value. How about:

… a performance of peerless purity …

or

… an enduringly bankable performance …

… he was feeling the competition …

Ho-hum … trying to get the innuendo out of my head, I came up with:

… he was struggling to ignore his rival’s halitosis …

… one to watch …

Wouldn’t we all love to be the one to watch? The rising star of the future? Or would we rather be some sort of:

… futurologist’s crumpet …

… more than you can shake a stick at …

Where on earth does this ridiculous phrase come from? Received wisdom suggests that it dates back to the olden days when armies would rattle their sabres (or sticks) at each other before engaging in combat. The sense is of being confronted by an outnumbering force. So:

… more than Atilla’s hordes could eat for breakfast …

… not a bed of roses …

Nothing is a bed of roses except, perhaps, a bed of roses. Is there an underlying allusion to thorns here, too? If it’s not a bed of roses maybe it’s more akin to:

… a fakir’s bed of nails …

… scraping through …

Whenever someone is described as “scraping through” I can’t help thinking of the Shawshank Redemption when (following phrase contains spoilers) the hero picks his way out of prison with a geological hammer. Or even someone:

… leaving a lot of skin on the door frame …

… a wake up call …

That’s what I get from the hotel reception when I need to wake early – shades of turning over and groggily answering the phone. Normally when this phrase is used people mean something more like:

… a smack in the face with a wet halibut …

… wide of the mark …

I think this is another martial phrase from days of bows and arrows. Is it wide of the mark or is it:

… a frigate’s length off target …

Cliches are unavoidable and not necessarily a bad thing but a writer needs to be sure, if they are going to use a cliché, that they mean to use it and it is not an unconscious habit.

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6 Responses

  1. I think your alternative to “a wake up call” reminds me of too many childhood hours spent reading Asterix! It’s otherwise good. I’d like to see you use them all in one article.

  2. You’ve covered the full monty of clichés in this post. (haha)

  3. Yeah, the gloves were off, but when the chips were down and the rubber hit the road I had to run the gamut, if you know what I mean 🙂

  4. Humphrey Lyttleton would have said that cliches and feature writing go together like peaches and creosote, which if you unpack it is pretty accurate – so close to what you expect to hear, but ultimately unpleasant.

    On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to overwrite by using cliches, whereas it’s easy to destroy the flow and joy of the writing by trying to say everything in a clever way (the first, second and sometimes published drafts on my blog will illustrate that in a disappointingly accurate way).

    • Humph had the most perfect turn of phrase and a great knack of respinning an old cliche. The one that sticks in my mind was something like: “as the golden retriever puppy of destiny runs away with the unfurling toilet roll of time …” I imagine for some of his stuff there was a good team of script writers behind him, but I’m sure he did his own for The Best Of Jazz which he presented on Radio 2 and which was always packed with neat wordplays.

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